Published: 27th August 2016
Horse drawn trams have carried holidaymakers along the seafront of Douglas, the Isle of Man’s capital, continuously (other than during the two world wars) since 1876. This iconic image of Douglas promenade seemed doomed as the start of this season approached. The future now looks considerably brighter if not necessarily rosy, but controversy continues to swirl around this unique seaside feature.
The first section of single line 3ft gauge tramway set into the middle of the road along Douglas promenade opened on August 7 1876. Doubled in the 1880s and extended to Derby Castle in 1890, construction of Strathallan depot at Derby Castle (also the terminus of the Manx Electric Railway line to Ramsey) started in 1895, offices over the workshops being added in 1935. Douglas Bay Horse Tramway was purchased by Douglas Corporation in 1901, which ran it until announcing in January 2016 the line would close.
A meeting of government departments and bodies with Council representatives seemed to offer hope for the 140-year old trams, a joint statement by the Department of Infrastructure and Douglas Borough Council issued after January 27 talks confirmed, “A number of workable options for the possible retention of the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway were discussed.” From this, an ‘emergency fix’ deal emerged whereby Isle of Man Transport (part of an Isle of Man government department) undertook to operate the trams through the summer of 2016.
The Council put annual operating costs at £250,000. Minister for Infrastructure, Hon. Phil Gawne MHK, believed this could be reduced to £100,000 by eliminating overhead costs charged to the trams. After taking ‘services in kind’ (use of Council premises) from Douglas BC worth £25,000 into account and believing expertise in marketing the island’s heritage lines (the Manx Government nationalised the Douglas-Port Erin steam line, Manx Electric Railway and Snaefell Mountain Railway many years ago) could generate £25,000 additional income, he anticipated the cost would reduce to around £50,000.
This was not a long-term solution, with many details still to be resolved, not least the future of the stables site on Queen’s Promenade and Strathallan depot buildings, both essential to current operations, which the Council intended to sell as part of its closure decision.
This initial season of operating under Isle of Man Transport auspices seemed to fulfil the Minister’s expectations - as the July 27-31 Manx Heritage Transport Festival approached a 50-60% increase in passenger numbers and revenue (running one day less a week) was reported!
This encouraging boost in patronage and income clearly played a role in determining the outcome of a Tynwald (Manx Parliament) debate on July 20 which approved operation of the horse trams by Isle of Man Railways for two further seasons together with plans to acquire tramcars, horses and Strathallan Depot from Douglas Borough Council, for a nominal sum. The extended commitment to 2018 gives time for the government to prepare a business plan aimed at making the Horse Trams more profitable and provision of a case for capital investment to secure the tramway’s future.
Importantly, this transfer of assets did not include six currently unused tram vehicles, stored in the depot needing restoration, or the present stables site. However, the deal did include Strathallan Depot coming under government ownership, which will enable Isle of Man Transport to refurbish and adapt the building to provide new stables on the site where the tram cars are housed. This revives a proposal made around the end of 2013 when the Council was exploring ways to rationalise operation of the tramway.
While operation of the Horse Trams into the future seemed to have been achieved, controversy continues in relation to the assets retained by Douglas Council.
At surprisingly short notice the Council announced the six presently out of service trams, all of which require restoration, would be sold by auction on August 27 with purchasers to remove them by September 30. The trams involved were built by George Milnes and comprise Winter Saloon No. 28 (built 1892), 1896-built Bulkhead Toast Rack’s Nos. 33, 34 and 37, and 1902-built Open Toast Rack’s Nos. 39 and 40.
Selling these trams seems aimed at releasing space at Strathallan Depot, needed for Isle of Man Transport to construct new stable accommodation, while rationalising the stock of vehicles required for Isle of Man Transport’s continued operation of the tramway.
Swiftly following announcement of the tram auction, 'For Sale' signs appeared at the Queen’s Promenade stables site late on August 24. Described as a, “Prime development opportunity in picturesque sea front location” by local estate agents Chapman & Co, offers for the freehold of the 0.4 acre site are invited, no guide price being given.
The property encompasses three terraced houses, a paved area, stables and associated buildings. Unsurprisingly, the property is advertised as having potential for redevelopment, which could include a residential conversion, subject to securing planning consent. The property is zoned for tourism and residential uses on the Douglas Local Plan. With vacant possession quoted as being available in early 2017, it would seem Isle of Man Transport will have to act swiftly to provide new stable accommodation in time for the 2017 season.
Sale of the stables and alterations to the Strathallan Depot has been fiercely condemned by the Manx Electric Railway Society. “Douglas Borough Council can rest assured that the MERS will do all it can to oppose applications for development at either site which involves removal of the stables from where they have been for over 100 years,” commented a spokesman. The auction of redundant trams has also been the target of MERS criticism.
Friends of Douglas Bay Horse Tramway, an independent volunteer community group established in September 2014, has also expressed disquiet at the sale of the stables, a spokesman observing that, many people will recognise the historical, cultural and industrial-heritage represented by the 1877 stables, with the tramway being a unique and inseparable part of the cultural history and visitor experience of Douglas and the Isle of Man.
The future of Douglas Bay Horse Tramway has been a matter of debate, and no small concern, for a long time for reasons other than its financial status.
Proposals for a multi-£million promenade improvement scheme along the one and three-quarter mile seafront have been mooted for many years. In 2011 the place of the tramway within these schemes rose to the surface again with publication of an ‘Issues & Options’ consultation document. Ideas explored included moving the tram route from the centre of the road to the seaward side of the promenade, singling (with passing places) the present double track route and replacing (or complementing) the horse-drawn trams with a modern tram system. Inevitably, fears arose the horse trams may end up not having any place at all in final plans.
Even as Isle of Man Transport took over operation of the trams, Isle of Man’s Department of Infrastructure submitted a planning application for the refurbishment of Loch Promenade (Sea Terminal to the War Memorial) without provision for horse tram tracks, meaning the line may have been saved from closure but would be truncated to terminate at the War Memorial opposite the Villa Marina Colonnade. The remainder of the tramway route to Strathallan Crescent was apparently to be covered by a separate new planning application for a ‘tramway corridor’ alongside the roadway.
The July 20 Tynwald debate appeared to secure future running over the full length of the historic tramway route with a decision to build a new single line tramway track (presumably with passing loops) on the seaward side of the promenade from Derby Castle to the Sea Terminal as part of a Douglas Promenade highway improvement scheme. This new line would replace the current double track in the centre of the road. As a consequence, the application which would have shortened the line is understood to have been withdrawn.